On Parenting, Practical Life, Social and Emotional Learning

Entitlement: Been There, Done That

Few things trigger me more than interacting with a child who has an entitled attitude.  rich-kidWhy?  Because I was one of them.  I grew up in a traditional Mexican upper-middle-class family, with a stay-at-home mom and two maids who did all the housework so we didn’t have to.  I never did my laundry, tidied my room, or set a table.  Those things just happened!

When I was 18, my mom went back to school and decided that I needed to learn how to run a home.  One night, my dad was coming home a bit later than usual, my mom had class, and the maids were gone, so I was tasked with re-heating my dad’s dinner.  With the burner on high, I stirred the tomato sauce and thought, How will I know when it’s ready?  It eventually burned and my dad had to eat charred tomato sauce on his pasta.  I remember the feelings of shame and incompetence that washed over me as I watched him pick through the blackened bits on his plate.

The irony is that I ended up in hotel management school in Switzerland, which is like Practical Life boot camp for rich kids.  Within weeks I went from not knowing how to boil water to cooking coq au vin; from not knowing how to make my bed to mastering hospital corners; from not knowing how to set a table to prepping a banquet room for 350 people.  My teachers were kind, but they also had high expectations and only a few short months to prepare us for demanding industry internships.

After 12-hour shifts scrubbing pots and pans, I would drag myself to my dorm, body aching but self-confidence bolstered by what I had accomplished.  During my three six-month internships, I sometimes cried in the bathroom after getting chewed out by the head chef, but then I’d wash my face, put on my apron, and continue plucking thousands of chicken feathers or slicing tray after tray of tomatoes.

The resilience, growth mindset and grit that define my adult personality were not developed in my posh private high school or in my comfortable childhood home.  They came from three bone-crushing and character-building years of meaningful work, high expectations, and caring guidance.

Meaningful work.  High expectations.  Caring guidance.  These are the three cornerstones for the development of true self-worth.  They’re also inherent in the work children do in Montessori environments (both in school and at home).  When we do things for our children that they can do for themselves, we rob them of the experiences that will help them forge strength of character, develop autonomy, and lead fearless lives.

PS: About a decade ago, my father lost his business in one of Mexico’s financial crises, and my mom had to go into the workforce to support them.  She works long hours and doesn’t have time to cook, so my father was forced to prepare the meals.  He’s now a passionate home chef who pours over elaborate recipes and has found self-worth through cooking amazing meals.  It’s never too late to transform your life through meaningful work.

On Parenting, Practical Life

Boundaries

On a brisk and sunny Sunday three weeks ago, prior to heading out to a Christmas concert, I made my family a healthy and tasty lunch.  Both of my kids (ages 6 and 3) scoffed at it and my husband had to beg them to take their (mostly full) plates to the kitchen.  I cleaned the kitchen by myself while my husband and the kids played, and then we headed out, leaving behind a living room covered in toys and puzzles that I didn’t have the energy to fight about.

On the way to the concert, both kids began to whine that they were hungry and wanted to go to a restaurant.  My husband told them that we’d go to one after the concert. We arrived early, so my husband and the kids played on the lawn while I sat in the sunlight, too exhausted from making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, folding the laundry, doing the groceries, putting them away, cleaning out the fridge, unloading the dishwasher, making lunch and cleaning the kitchen again (plus putting in a 50-hour workweek at school, commuting, and making daily breakfasts, lunches and dinners).

A mixture of anger and sadness welled up inside me.  Where had it all gone wrong?!  Here I was, Ms. Full Montessori, with all my degrees, certifications, research and experience… And my kids were acting like entitled little brats!  Furious thoughts whirled through my mind as we entered the chapel where the concert was being held.  I tried to breathe out the negative thoughts and enjoy the music, but then my son began whining because I wouldn’t buy him a cookie from the concession stand and my daughter started melting down (because, no lunch, remember?).  Something inside of me snapped, and the tears began streaming down my cheeks.

We left the concert at intermission (see: pre-schooler and mommy meltdowns) and quietly piled back into the car.  We drove home in silence, and as soon as we got there I grabbed notebook and pen and fled the scene.  I needed to think, to reassess our lives.

I sat at a coffee shop and furiously made a list of all the responsibilities I shouldered in our home.  It was two pages long.  Then I marked those tasks that could be done by either my husband or my children, and sorted them into lists under their names.  As I crossed out chores from my list, I felt a considerable weight lifting off my shoulders.  I wrote out a “Who Does What” plan for mornings, evenings and weekends.  Then I headed home.

That evening, I called a family meeting and explained that I was feeling overwhelmed by all the responsibilities I had chosen to undertake.  I apologized for failing to give them opportunities to contribute to the household, and pointed out how capable they had become in just a few short years.  I shared all of the tasks I knew they were capable of doing, and showed them the plan that outlined all the family contributions.

I also talked about lifestyle changes: no eating between meals; restaurant dinners were limited to Friday evenings or special occasions; and my husband and I would leave the kids with the babysitter and go on date nights every other Saturday.  At the bottom of the list I wrote: “No moaning/groaning/whining.”

My kids seemed excited by most of the changes.  My husband, not so much…

Stay tuned to find out how our lives have evolved in the past three weeks since I set these new boundaries and expectations, and what tools I’ve been using to shift us towards more gratitude and less entitlement!

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Tips From the Toddler Whisperer

In the past few months, Zach’s picked up a few bad habits due to a lack of awareness and consistency on my part.  His amazing Montessori guide – a veritable toddler whisperer – gave me some suggestions to minimize our struggles and support Zachary’s development.  I thought I’d share them with you, in case you find yourself in the same boat…

1. Make it fun

As some of you already know, bedtime is the toughest part of the day for us.  Zach is tired and I’m beyond exhausted.  I want to get him ready for bed as efficiently as possible, and he wants to do everything BUT go to bed.  I work all day with elementary-aged students, who for the most part do what you ask and don’t run away with their underwear on their head (although you’d be surprised…).  So, I forget that Zach is not even two yet, and for him life is one giant party.  

His guide told me to make things fun – make the bedtime routine into a game.  My first thought was, “I don’t have the energy for that.”  But I also don’t have the energy to chase him around and get angry, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Of course, it worked!  We sang, played body part peek-a-boo, and before he knew it he was ready for bed and we were both in a better mood.  

This is not my style at all; I’m a very matter-of-fact, “git er done” kind of person, which is why I work with elementary children and not with toddlers.  But it’s also been a reminder that the adult has to meet the child where they are, in order to guide their development.

2. Encourage independence

A few months ago, Zach learned how to say “help” in English and Spanish, which quickly evolved into “help me”.  It is the cutest darn phrase coming from a tiny tot, and of course my husband and I melt every time we hear it and obligingly come to the rescue.  We were reacting as any caring parents would; he was learning that the more he used the phrase, the less he had to do on his own. 

During our parent-teacher conference, Zach’s guide pointed out that our son was quick to say “help me”, even for challenges he could easily overcome on his own.  I had the sinking realization that, despite all my training and experience, I wasn’t encouraging my child’s independence!  All the Montessori training in the world does you no good unless you take the time to observe yourself and the child, and analyze how your choices are impacting his behaviors.

I decided to approach Zach’s desire for help the same way I do in the classroom: stay busy!  When a Montessori guide has 25 or more students in one class, there’s no possible way she can help them all.  She’s always busy giving lessons, and the children see this, so they quickly learn to work through challenges creatively and independently.  Only truly insurmountable problems are brought to the guide, and even then, she only provides the minimum help necessary.

Zach had plenty of struggles yesterday, including peeling a mandarin, stacking a pile of Legos onto a wheeled Lego car, and putting together a puzzle.  I heard his plea for help and each time replied with an encouraging smile: “Try by yourself a little longer while I finish folding clothes/making dinner/doing the dishes.”   If help was truly needed, I acknowledged his request with genuine pleasure but gave the least assistance possible, retiring the moment my participation became obsolete.  Not surprisingly, he was perfectly capable of doing everything on his own or with minimal intervention.  My hope is that soon the words “help me” will be replaced with the words “I did it by myself!”

3. Stop the “evil” and re-direct

When Dr. Montessori coined her famous phrase, “Follow the child”, she meant we should follow the child’s DEVELOPMENT, not let the child do whatever he pleased.  Along with following the child, she also stressed that we should “stop the evil”, or put an end to any behavior that is not conducive to positive development.

Zach has started throwing things, mostly when he’s frustrated, tired, or can’t find the words to express what he wants.  The behavior began gradually, so it escaped my over-burdened radar until Zach’s guide brought it up.  She recommended asking Zach to look me in the eyes, telling him that his behavior is not acceptable, and re-directing him to a different activity.

I’ve put it into practice at home and it looks something like this: “I notice you’re feeling angry because the puzzle pieces won’t fit.  I won’t let you throw puzzle pieces.  I’m going to put this puzzle away.  Would you like to throw a ball outside or help me wash the dishes in the sink?” 

With my words, I’m telling Zach that I understand his feelings and their source.  I’m also establishing a limit and letting him know what happens if he oversteps it.  And I’m giving him two manageable alternatives: one that will satisfy his need to throw and the other that will provide a calming experience that requires focus and self-control.

I find it useful to have pre-established phrases or prompts so I always know what to say in the heat of the moment.  Here’s my version:

“I notice you are feeling _________________ because ________________.  I won’t let you ____________________.  I’m going to _______________.  Would you like to __________________ or ________________?”

 Here’s what I’ve learned this week:

  • The preparation of the adult is an on-going journey that requires you to stop, look, and listen – to yourself, your partner, and your child.  
  • It takes a village to support a parent and raise a child.  
  • Your child’s Montessori guide can provide a clear and objective window into your child’s development.  Don’t be too proud to listen and learn.  (And please don’t give her the old “Well, do YOU have children?” excuse.  You know she’s right.  Suck it up and do it.)
  • Mistakes only become failures if you don’t learn from them.
  • If you want your child’s behavior to change, modify your own first.

And finally, remember this:

“Parenting without a sense of humor is like being an accountant who sucks at math.”

 

 

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Playing Catch Up

There’s one thing that sets children ages 0-3 apart from children in all other Montessori age groups, and it’s been throwing me for a loop recently:

THEIR NEEDS AND ABILITIES CHANGE SO DARN FAST!!!  AAARRGGGHHH!!!

I spent almost two hours observing through a one-way window in my son’s Toddler Community.  What I saw was amazing.  And disconcerting.

Because the environment I worked so hard to set up for my one-year old just a few months back?  Yeah, completely useless now.

My baby, the one who was content shaking a maraca or drooling over a plastic lion, is now a capable almost-two-year-old who makes his own orange juice, slices cucumbers, washes dishes, paints, draws, pastes, sews, strings beads… The list is endless!

The Montessori mommy part of me is excited at the thought of re-vamping our space to make way for Practical Life activities, but the Montessori teacher part of me knows the hard work that is involved in the creation, rotation, and upkeep of said activities.  *deep breaths*

With Thanksgiving vacation around the corner, I’m going to make it my mission to slowly introduce new activities in our home.  I promise to make time to share them here!

trayFirst step: buy trays.  Like the Primary environment, all activities are kept on color-coded trays.  Unlike Primary, the activities are often performed within the trays.  So, say the child is juicing oranges.  The juicer, orange, bowl for the fruit,  pitcher and sponge would all stay within the tray as the child works.  The trays should have handles on the sides for easy gripping and transportation.  Thankfully, if you live in the United States you can take care of all your toddler tray needs at Michael’s!  Guess where I’ll be this weekend?

Unlike they do in the classroom, I’m not going to paint the trays; I’m going to stain them all the same color and then use colored electrical tape to line the exterior and a matching oilcloth rectangle to line the interior.  This way, I can use the same tray over again for a different activity by simply changing the color coding!  Electrical tape is great for anything that needs color coding: pitchers, buckets, glasses, brush handles, etc.

Second step: make an apron.  Zachary’s school uses this one, so I want to make the same model to support his sense of order and help him master one type of apron before moving on to other variations.  I think I have a few yards of oilcloth somewhere, for the apron I was going to make him one year ago…  Add one more project to my ever-growing list of Thanksgiving activities!

So, there you have it – the truth about being a Montessori teacher/mom.  Just because you know how it works doesn’t mean you have the bandwidth to keep up.

But I’m trying…

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How to Montessori Your Home

Welcome!  Come on in… I’m Zach and this is my home.  I was born in my parents’ bedroom upstairs and have spent my entire life – a whopping 16 months – living here.  I love what my parents have done with the place and I want to share my favorite spots with you.

Let’s begin in the kitchen.  When I started being strong enough to open the drawers on my own, my mom had to do some re-arranging.  She moved all the chemicals to the bathroom (the only cabinet in the house with a child-proof lock).  She put her glass tupperware in a higher drawer so I wouldn’t accidentally break it while playing with the other containers, and she moved the silverware (except the sharp knives) down to a low drawer so I could have access to it.  Other than that, she left everything else as it was.  A few times I tried investigating the delicate items she had in some of the drawers, but she would come over and tell me “no, those are not for you”.  She would then show me which drawers I could play with.  Now I know!  I got my fingers caught in the heavy drawers a couple of times, but now I’m really skilled at closing them.  My favorite item in the kitchen is my dad’s old blender.  I spend hours assembling and disassembling it!

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Next to the kitchen is the little wooden cupboard where I keep my toys.  My mom found it at a swap meet and I love it because it’s the perfect size for me!  We keep my cars in one basket on the floor and my balls in another.  Mommy says baskets are great, and I agree!  I especially like to dump everything out of them and then put things back (or walk away and leave a giant mess behind, depending on my mood).

cupboard

Next to my toys is my weaning table.  This is where I had my first meal with a bowl and a spoon!  When I first used the table, at 4 months of age, I needed help sitting up.  Now, all mom has to say is: “It’s time to eat!” and I run to my table, pull out my chair, and sit down on my own!  Sometimes I share my weaning table with my friend James.  We have so much fun eating lunch together!  My dad and my aunt Debbie made the weaning table from plywood he had lying around in the basement.  They also built my Learning Tower, which we move into the kitchen when I need to wash my hands or help with the cooking.  I hope one day I can be as crafty as they are.

table

I have breakfast and dinner with mom and dad at the dining room table.  I have a Tripp-Trapp chair that was a present from my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins.  I love knowing that my entire family has contributed to my independence.  I am learning to climb in and out of the chair on my own, and it’s so nice to share meals with mom and dad.  We always light a candle and use real china, silverware, and glasses.  I love feeding myself, which can get a little messy but it’s also a lot of fun.  I’ve broken a couple of glasses and plates, but now I have a lot of respect for them.  I am so careful, that now I am in charge of taking the plates and silverware to the table when it’s time for dinner!

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OK, moving along… Squeeze by the couch and follow me outside.  Here are my geraniums, which I water every day (I’m working on getting more water into the pots and less water on the floor).  Over there is my water source, and my watering can.  I quickly learned how to get water to come out of the spigot, and now I can fill my own watering can.  My mom put a large container underneath to catch spills, and an old cooling rack serves as a surface for resting my watering can.  I also have a pot with a lot of dirt, and an almost-empty pot that I am slowly filling up with dirt and toys and pinecones and rocks and everything else I find in the patio.  My mom always says that she needs to “put more work into the outdoor environment”, but actually this is my favorite spot in the entire house!

outdoors

Let’s come back inside.  Careful with those steps, you might want to hold on to the low railing my dad installed so I could go up and down the steps on my own.  This way, I can get to the bathroom when I have to use the potty.  Here’s my little toilet; I have another one upstairs.  Here are my underwear and my books.  Mom and I spend a lot of time here, reading books, singing songs, and waiting for me to do my business.  When I pee or poop, I proudly empty my potty into the toilet on my own, while my mom flinches and tries to pretend like she’s not dying to help me.

potty

Oh, look, right outside the bathroom is the dogs’ water bowl.  I used to make a giant mess every time I walked by – I couldn’t resist turning over the bowl and spilling the water everywhere!  I’m much more mature now; I notice when it’s empty and take it to my mom so she can fill it up.  She didn’t understand me the first time I took it to her and said “agua“.  She told me, “No, there’s no water in the bowl right now”.  Moms can be so dense!  I persisted, and eventually she understood and got really excited at my new “level of awareness”, which is what she called it when she told daddy.  Call it whatever you want, mom, but someone had to give the dogs water!

Let’s go upstairs.  Mind the gate at the bottom of the stairs, which nowadays is only used for keeping the dogs downstairs.  We still use the one at the top of the stairs when mom has to take a shower and I am hanging out  upstairs.

Here’s my bedroom.  I slept on a floor bed for many months.  It was a crib mattress placed on the floor, and I really enjoyed the freedom it gave me to explore my room after my nap or if I wasn’t feeling sleepy.  Unfortunately, I am a big-time roller, and in the winter I would roll out of bed and get very cold sleeping on the wood floor.  My parents found the perfect solution: this neat bed from IKEA!  Instead of using slats to raise the mattress off the floor (like the original design intended), my dad came up with the idea of putting the mattress on the floor so that there would be a low wall surrounding it.  There’s a little entry/exit built into one end of the bed’s frame, but I’m also really good at climbing in and out the side of the bed (I landed on my face the first few times I tried this, but now I’m a real pro).  Next to the bed is my stool and my laundry hamper.  Mom says I’m a wiggle worm; she tries to get me to sit down to get dressed, but I often end up running around the room half-naked.  However, I do love to put my dirty clothes into the hamper!

room

In the upstairs bathroom I have a stool to reach the counter so I can brush my teeth, and I also have another potty like the one downstairs.  In my parents’ room I have a few toys on a shelf, which I mostly use only when mommy is getting dressed.  This was my movement area when I was younger; I had my mobiles, mirror, and a bar for pulling up and cruising.  We’ll soon turn it back into a climbing wall so I can give mom more heart attacks start bouldering!

upstairs

Well, that’s it, folks!  I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of our Montessori home…  Thanks for visiting, come back soon!

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Choosing a Montessori School: Uninterrupted work period

Imagine you arrive at work at 8am, energized and ready to work on a fun but challenging project that will require several hours of your time.  You know that to really get the project on solid footing and make sense of its complexity, you need several hours of uninterrupted focus.  You sit down at your desk, fire up your computer, and start organizing your thoughts.  Suddenly, a reminder pops up on your computer screen:

Mandatory staff meeting @ 8:45am.

Now, answer this question truthfully: Knowing that you have to leave your project aside in 45 minutes, would you use your time to focus on challenging tasks that require your undivided attention, or would you take it easy for 45 minutes, checking your e-mail, refilling your coffee cup, and sneaking a peek at Facebook?

Yeah, I’d choose the latter, too.

What does this have to do with Montessori?  All Montessori educators are familiar with what we call the “three-hour work period”.  As the name suggests, this is a three-hour chunk of time in the morning in which the children receive presentations, choose materials, have snack, and work at their own pace on activities that interest them. (Note: All AMI-recognized schools also have a two-hour uninterrupted work period in the afternoon for children ages 4 and older).  A quality Montessori school will not have a single interruption during the work period: no Spanish teacher coming into the classroom; no music instructor pulling kids out; no physical education taking place on the basketball courts.

Dr. Montessori discovered that a child as young as three, who has spent a few months in the Montessori classroom, is able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence.  She noted that for this to happen, a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted classroom time are essential.  Of her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, she noted: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.”

True cognitive and personal development – the type that takes place in a Montessori classroom – cannot happen in 45-minute spurts.

In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard points out that, “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.”  Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become nuisances to their peers.  Even more tragic are children who don’t know an interruption is coming; they choose demanding work, become engrossed, and are understandably upset when the disruption takes place.

While interruptions are part and parcel of traditional education methods, they just aren’t necessary in Montessori.  The beauty of the Montessori “curriculum” (for lack of a better word) is that it encompasses EVERYTHING that children should be exposed to in school.  The usual “pull-out” subjects like art, music, physical education, drama, and yoga are all found within a well-prepared Montessori classroom.  It might not look like what you experienced in school, but then again, doesn’t everything in Montessori look different than traditional education?  It’s a good kind of different; it’s a different that makes sense – a different that works!

You might be thinking, “How can one teacher know and teach everything?”.  She doesn’t.  But she also doesn’t have to.  The materials are carefully designed to capture the child’s interest and guide him in the learning process.  The child’s drive for knowledge and the material’s self-correcting qualities are the true teachers – the adult just brings the child and the material together as a kind of middleman of the learning process.

Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working?  Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?”  Dr. Montessori addresses this concern in The Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. I: “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.”  Stoll Lillard adds, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”

Dr. Montessori concludes: “The one means by which exhaustion can be eliminated is to make work pleasant and interesting, to give joy in work rather than pain.”

If you are looking for a Montessori school for your child, make sure to ask if they respect the three-hour morning work period WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS (and don’t forget the afternoon work period for your older child!!).  And if you’re a teacher, make sure you protect the three-hour work period with your life!

Would this child have chosen to learn about Europe if he only had 45 minutes?